How to Improve Reference Photos

Last week’s featured newsletter article was called Planning for a Successful Drawing. One of the tips I shared was starting with great reference photos. A reader responded by asking how to improve reference photos that are less than ideal.

That’s a legitimate question. Many clients who want pet portraits are asking for posthumous portraits. In those cases, the reference photos are usually less than ideal for any of several reasons. Poor lighting, awkward perspective, and photos taken inside are just a few.

I’ve created portraits from less than ideal reference photos, and while it can be done, it is usually more difficult. I also often find the resulting portraits less satisfying to me as the artist.

But there are times when the only choice is between refusing the commission or working with what the client provides. Sometimes refusing a commission really is the best decision, but I’ve always had difficulty doing that.

So I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade to improve reference photos using a photo editor, and I’d like to share those tricks with you today.

How to Improve Reference Photos

The reader who wrote to me provided a couple of photos and granted me permission to use them. So I’ll do what I can to improve each of the photos and tell you what I did with each one.

One quick note before I begin: Any good photo editor such as PhotoShop or GIMP can do basic adjustments. I think a lot of phone apps are also good for making basic adjustments to brightness, contrast, and other similar basic manipulations.

I used GIMP before I started publishing CP Magic! and tutorials. Afterward, I purchased publishing software called Affinity. Serif makes Affinity Publisher, Affinity Photo, and Affinity Designer. They all work together and you can move a file from one software to the next without closing and re-opening it. As you might expect, the range of photo adjustments is much broader. The Affinity apps are inexpensive ($50 per app and you can purchase only the ones you need,) so if you do a lot of photo work, Affinity Photo is well worth the purchase price.

But the adjustments I’m about to describe are more basic and you can do them on most basic photo editors.

Now on to the sample photos.

Improving Photo #1

Here’s the reader’s first photo.

Lightening Dark Photos

Poorly lighted photos are one of the most common types of reference photos clients provide. Poor lighting has several causes but the worst is interior photos because you often also have to deal with flash lighting.

Because of this, the first thing I always try is making the photo brighter. In most photo editors, look for a setting called Brightness & Contrast. Where you’ll find that setting varies from editor to editor. Sometimes it’s under a menu labeled “Images,” sometimes under “Adjustments” or in some other menu or option. No matter where it is in your photo editor, it’s a good place to start when adjusting most photos.

For this photo, I brightened it about 50%.

How to Improve Reference Photos

Improving Contrast

The next adjustment I usually do is adjusting the contrast. If a photo is too light, you can increase the contrast to bring out the details in washed out values. If it’s too dark, you can decrease the contrast to reveal details in areas that are too dark.

Since this photo was too dark, I decreased the contrast. You can see in this side-by-side that the details in the black parts of the black-and-white cat are much clearer in the adjusted photo than in the original photo.

Adjusting Brightness and Contrast

In the first two steps, I did just the brightness (first side-by-side) then just the contrast (second side-by-side.) Sometimes you need to do both, but don’t start by doing both. If one of these adjustments works, great. That’s all you need!

But sometimes it’s helpful to adjust both the brightness and the contrast. In that case, start with the adjustment that’s the most obvious. For this photo, that was adjusting the brightness. Whichever you decide to adjust first, get the photo to look the best you can with the first adjustment.

Then make the second adjustment.

That’s what I did here, and this is the result from adjusting the brightness first, then adjusting the contrast.

How to Improve Reference Photos

Making these adjustments is easy.

Finding the right balance is more difficult and is based on your preferences about how a photo should look. If you know the subject, then you’re better equipped to get the most accurate adjustments possible. If you’re working with a client photo, then you’ll have to do the best you can.

There will be situations in which you need to work from two versions of the reference photo: One adjusted for brightness and one adjusted for contrast. I’ve done this in the past and it works quite well.

If I were working from this photo, I’d use the third photo, but I’d also keep a copy of the original so I could make other adjustments as needed to see details.

Improving Photo #2

Here’s the second photo. This one was taken outside and is back-lit with strong light, so it presents some unique challenges.

Adjust the Brightness First

I once again began by adjusting the brightness first. I started out by increasing the brightness by 50%, but that didn’t bring out the details in the black areas as much as I liked. So I increased the adjustment to 100%.

There are more visible details in the black fur, but look at that white fur! It’s nothing but blazing white!

How to Improve Reference Photos

Adjust the Contrast

So I canceled the brightness adjustment and adjusted the contrast. Because the contrast is already so strong in this photo, I decided to decrease it.

Decreasing the contrast by 50% didn’t do much for the photo, so I pushed it all the way to 100%. That turned out much better than I expected. Other than the brightest white highlights still being blown out (over-exposed,) there is plenty of detail visible in the white fur and a good amount in the black fur. You could do a portrait based on this adjusted photo and have it turn out fairly well.

Adjusting Brightness and Contrast

The last thing I tried was adjusting brightness and contrast together. As you can see below, this produced the best results. Brightness is increased by 56% and contrast is decreased by 100%.

The colors are a bit washy, but you can see plenty of details in both the black and the white fur. Color is much easier to correct as you draw, so this is the photo I’d work from.

However, as with the first photo, I would keep a copy of the original photo for comparison.

How to Improve Reference Photos

There Are More Ways to Improve Reference Photos

These are just the three steps I take with most reference photos. Additional adjustments include things like color balance, white balance, color temperature corrections, clarity and so on. Some of them are quite complex and involved.

But for most artists, getting the brightness and contrast correct is all that’s necessary. The good news is that most photo apps, even the ones in your phone, are capable of these adjustments.

How to Choose Reference Photos

Let’s take a short break from talking about making art to talk about reference photos. Specifically, how to choose reference photos for your next art piece.

For most of us, our artwork is usually not much better than the reference photos we use. It is true that the more skilled we become, the better able we are compensate for less than ideal photos. But still, the better the reference we start with, the more likely our work will succeed.

But what makes for a good reference photo?

How to Choose Reference Photos

Let me share four things I look for (other than an attention-grabbing subject) when choosing reference photos.

How to Choose Reference Photos


Whether or not you do your own photography, the composition of the image is important. You most likely will not use everything that appears in the photograph in your artwork, but a nicely composed photograph gives you a head start.

I prefer working from my own photographs, so I do a lot of composing through the lens of a camera. Even though I’ll never use most of those images as references, composing through the lens has become second nature.

Even so, not every image is perfect (or close to it.)

I took the two images that follow the same day.

The first one is well composed, though it could be improved. But I like the overall look and think it could make a fantastic (if somewhat complex) colored pencil piece.

The second one looks like I shot it a little carelessly. I’ve inadvertently cut off the bottom part of the spiny plant (which is what drew my attention.) There’s too much sky, too.

The slightly off-center position of the “spiny plant” is better than the dead-center position in the first photograph, but a lot of detail is missing.

And, to be honest, its easier to import the right hand details from the second photo into the first photo than it would be to make up the missing details in the second photo.

How to Choose Reference Photos

In this example, the best solution is to use both photos to improve on the composition for the artwork.

That is totally acceptable. Many artists use more than one reference photo to create their artwork, choosing the best parts of each photo.


The next thing—and probably the most important thing for most of us—is the lighting.

As artists, we work with light no matter what our subject. The nature of the light gives the image it’s character. Dim light conceals things. Bright light emphasizes them. The color of the light changes the way things look, too.

Skilled artists can accurately fill in a lot of information that might be missing from a reference photo. Changing the lighting is next to impossible for most of us, so look for reference photos with the kind of lighting you want to draw.

Following are two similar scenes. Forget the slanting horizon line in the first one, and the rather sparse compositions. Look at the lighting.

The first photo shows dim light in the distance, with much of the land in shadow, while the second photo is fully lighted.

Also notice how cool the light is in the first photograph, while the second is much warmer.

How to Choose Reference Photos

The lighting is good enough in both photos for artwork, but they create two different moods. They almost look like two different times of year, don’t they? Spring and summer, maybe? (Ironically, I took both at the same location on the same day.)

Natural light in the middle of the day also creates a different mood than the light of dawn or evening. Artificial light comes in many colors and presents challenges of its own.

So look for reference photos that fit your idea for your drawing.


Photographic distortion happens with every photo. That’s because the camera sees everything with equal clarity, unlike the human eye. In addition, cameras have no depth perception.

Cameras also have a tendency to make things up close look bigger than they are relative to things a little bit further away. This is especially noticeable with animals and people, but can also be seen in other subjects.

I photographed this miniature horse over the stall door. Cute, isn’t he?

I’m not sure why I took the photograph because I’d never use it as a reference. The head is far too big for the body (photographic distortion.) The angle is also wrong for a portrait. The horse is looking up at me. A good portrait shows the subject at eye level.

The image below, however, is good for a reference photo. In fact, I’ve considered using it more than once over the years.

The horse and rider are accurately captured. Their parts all fit together in proper relationship. The atmosphere and lighting reflect my idea of showing a race horse and exercise rider during a morning workout.

How to Choose Reference Photos


I’ve mentioned elsewhere that value is the most important thing to get right in any art you do. Value (the difference between lights and darks) is what makes your subject look three-dimensional.

So it’s important to look for reference photos that have a good value range.

Take a look at these two photos of cattle.

I took this photo on a cloudy morning with flat light. The most contrast is between the lightest colored cow and the darkest cow. The shadows aren’t much darker than the middle values on any of the cattle and there are no highlights at all.

Later the same day, and a different group of cattle….

The sky is clear and the sun is bright, creating distinct shadows and highlights.

Or, in other words, the values are more striking.

Yes, it is easier to ramp up the values than to make almost any other improvement, but it’s still a good idea to look for reference photos that have strong contrasts.

Unless your goal is a moody, evocative image. In that case, low contrast fits your needs better and you need to choose reference photos that reflect that idea.

Choosing Reference Photos Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

Are you surprised color isn’t on this short list? That’s because I don’t usually think of color as being that important overall. Yes, I like color, but when everything else is in place, color is usually also correct.

Most of the time, the good reference photos appeal you at once and there’s no doubt.

But these tips will help you choose reference photos when you have two or more choices that appeal to you with no clear choice between them.

Choose the photo with the best combination of these options and you’re on your way!

Tips for Choosing Reference Photos

If you’ve ever been stumped in choosing reference photos, I know you’d love a few tips from another artist.

John Ursillo has been painting and drawing for many years, so he’s the ideal person to help us all choose better reference photos.

Please welcome John Ursillo back to the blog.

Tips for Choosing Reference Photos

Tips for Choosing Reference Photos

by John Ursillo, CPSA

I am a strong advocate for any artist who decides to take on a realist piece to:

First, become familiar with why the objects and overall “look” of an attracting reference looks as it does; and,

Second, acquire knowledge about the subject, the light it was taken under, and surrounding surfaces that can contribute to reflected light shining into shadows, etc.

True, an adept artist may get by with directly copying a reference without this knowledge, but IMHO it will show.  Snapshot photographs are notorious for deceiving the eye. Shadows are often too dark and light areas overexposed, or the reverse. Calendar photos with blown out supersaturated sunsets  are the worst examples to follow.

That’s also why copies of portraits of people or pets taken with an indoor flash or outdoor, bright frontal sunlit photos often just do not look “right”. Viewers of the finished piece can see when something is “not quite right,” even if they cannot put their finger on just what the cause is.

A Compulsive Realist and Photographer

Enough philosophy! I confess to being a compulsive “Realist”. That was my training and still gives me and my clients satisfaction with my work. Thus, good reference material is essential to my creative process. After all, I was an engineer professionally and thus strongly “left” brained. I seldom use subjects drawn solely from my imagination. IDEAS, yes, of course, but always followed by real world reference materials that give substance to these “bolts of inspiration.”

I am also a compulsive photographer when I travel (even about the yard). That tendency adds body to my store of references which dates back into the 1980’s – the days of something we actually called “film”.

In my art I use only images I capture myself – never the work of anyone else without permission, giving attribution to the giver. And that rarely.

Digital photography has been a boon to me, especially the cameras now built into our cell phones. These have opened documentation of worlds of subjects in numbers (regarding storage, retrieval, quality and internal image manipulation) that were far less practical before.

Keys for Choosing which Reference to Use:


A “good” idea – something that grabs my attention and will not let go until fed. I do not access images on the internet as a source of ideas – public domain notwithstanding. Those are someone else’s ideas, not mine.

Realist, detailed, with a strong potential focal point and lines, value forms, etc. that contribute, with some effort, to making a good composition.

Close to the Originating Idea

Must come close to what my mental concept is. An exact match is often not possible but close enough is good. Sometimes this may take several references if specific details are missing or other subject elements are required. The rest is supplied by imagination.


If I need a specific atmospheric effect I don’t have a reference for: e.g. a fog bank or cloud effect.

I never use copyright protected material – ever!

I may, rarely, need to use the internet or my non-digital (paper) library to find exact information for a subject to flesh out the subject from an environmental or historical context. For example, when drawing a historical scene, I may need to see exactly the way a particular ship is rigged, constructed, etc.

The reference for my tutorial in Carrie’s magazine is a close-up from a digital photo of the movie ship “SS Venture”.

This is the original photo, taken in New Zealand.

This is the composition I cropped from the original photo.

As with many references captured during a trip, the snapshot collecting is quick but the resulting photographs often throw the balance between light and dark off kilter. Should one follow this image literally the shadows would be too dark, losing most of the detail within, and the highlights too light, ditto.

If you have access to a computer you can push the values so that the shadows become full of detail and the highlights likewise. That’s what I usually do, (either digitally or by careful observation) because it’s necessary

Now You Know John’s Method for Choosing Reference Photos

Are you more confident is choosing the reference for your next piece? I hope so!

My thanks to John for sharing his experiences with using canvas with colored pencils.

John is the featured artist in the May issue of CP Magic. Get your copy here and read more about his unique technique and his artistic journey.

Preparing a Reference Photo

Today, I’d like to talk about preparing a reference photo. There are a lot of ways to do this, so I’ll keep it simple and describe some of the things I do almost all the time.

Most of my work in the past was for portraits, but I’ve also used these methods to turn so-so reference photos into great (or at least better) reference photos for my own work. They can help you do the same.

NOTE: This post is not intended to be a step-by-step tutorial. There are too many photo editors on the market to make that possible. I use three different pieces of software as needed, and I will link to them below.

Preparing a Reference Photo for a Portrait

Preparing a Reference Photo

Preparing reference photos is important whether you’re doing a portrait, an exhibit piece, or something for yourself or a friend. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it should be an important part of your creative process.

My sample was for a portrait, but I’ve also taken the same steps with my own pieces, with animal art, landscapes, and the occasional still life.

I used a photograph taken by photographer Mark Adair, whom I want to thank for allowing me to use his work. Thanks, Mark!

Mark provided a great selection of images, so there was a lot of material at my fingertips. This is the image the client chose.

Photo by Mark Adair


The first thing you should always do is start with the most basic stuff: Configuration and composition.

The portrait was 16 inches by 20 inches in size, so the first thing to do was crop the reference photo to the same dimensions as the final portrait. I usually make 8 x 10s of printed reference photos (unless the drawing is complex,) so I cropped this image to 8 x 10 as well.

I used Irfanview for this image. Irfanview is a free down-loadable program. Somewhat limited in scope, it still does almost everything I need to do to prepare digital reference photos.

Since this is a pretty straight forward project, there wasn’t much to do with composing. I placed the horse a little bit to the right of center, so he was trotting into the space. I also placed him a little bit above center. That put his head next to one of the four “sweet spots” according to the rule of thirds (see below.)

You’ll notice that the knee of the raised front leg is also near one of those sweet spots, and a third one falls over the crossed back legs. All three are centers of interest, though the head is the most important of the three.

That wasn’t my intention. I usually focus on the head, even in full body portraits, but this is icing on the cake, so to speak.

Preparing a Reference Photo

Once you have the composition nailed down and the digital image is the same proportions as the your artwork, you can start making smaller adjustments.

Fine-Tuning the Reference Photo

Most photo editors provide the opportunity to adjust photos in dozens of ways from adding special effects to creating halftones or sepia tones (or almost any other tone.)

When you prepare a photo reference for portrait work, you probably won’t care about all those other features. But there are some adjustments you should consider.


The key to a successful portrait is contrast. The light values need to be light enough and the dark values need to be dark enough.

If your photo reference doesn’t show clear light and dark values, now is the time to tinker with contrast.

Adjust the contrast and brightness of the photo a little, reviewing the results after each adjustment. Continue to experiment until you either find a contrast setting you like, or decide to go with the original settings.

Changing the contrast even a lot didn’t do much for this photo. The initial adjustment made so little difference that I tried a more dramatic adjustment. Here’s what I ended up with. Can you tell the difference between this and the original reference? I couldn’t.

Color Corrections

Sometimes it helps to adjust the color settings. Most photo editors can adjust each of the three primary colors individually or all of them together. Depending on your software, you may be able to make a lot of complex adjustments, or just a few simple ones. Whatever the case, it’s worthwhile to experiment to see what happens.

Canva is a good online option. Canva is a graphic designer. I use it to create the memes in my posts and to make illustrations that contain more than one image.

But they have a great photo editor and it’s free to use. Just open an account, upload images, and try any number of adjustments without changing the original image.

GIMP is also a good option. It’s a free download and works a lot like Photoshop, but the learning curve is pretty steep. I’m still trying to figure out a lot of the features.

I made color corrections in Irfanview and came up with the photo below. Again, I didn’t see a lot of difference between it and the original image, so I decided I was finished preparing the reference photo. Contrast and color could be adjusted as I worked on the portrait. That’s one of the advantages of drawing horses for over 40 years!

Preparing a Reference Photo


Additional changes to the composition—such as leaving out elements or moving them around—could be done in a photo editor, but I usually prefer to do those things while making the line drawing.

The real secret to this process is taking your own reference photos and making as many of these changes as possible in that process. The better the photographs you take, the fewer adjustments you’ll need to make now!

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos

No reference photo is ever perfect. Even with the best images, you can make changes to improve the composition.  So the question is: Do you know what to keep and leave out of reference photos?


Then you’re in luck, because that’s the topic of this article!

The subject for this article is a colored pencil drawing titled The Sentinel, and the reference photo on which I based it.

The drawing was created using the complementary under drawing method, and I described the process step-by-step in a three-part series for EmptyEasel. If you’re interested in that tutorial, here are the links.

How to Draw a Complementary Underpainting for your Green Landscape

How to Add Rich, Vibrant Color on Top of Your Colored Pencil Underpainting

Finishing Up a Traditional Colored Pencil Landscape Painting

What I want to do today is talk a little bit about how I changed the reference photograph for The Sentinel to create a better composition.

To get started, here’s the original reference photo.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos - The Reference

This is the drawing that resulted.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos - The Drawing

I know what you’re thinking! How in the world did I get from the reference photo to the drawing?

Some of you are also no doubt wondering why I made the changes I made.

Grab a cup of coffee or hot chocolate (or whatever), and I’ll tell you all about it.

The Perfect Reference Photo

Before I go any further, let me stress the fact that something about the reference photo drew my attention the moment I saw it. The original scene was so appealing that I made my husband stop the car so I could get out and take pictures. That appeal came through in this photo.

The reason I mention this is to tell you that if there isn’t something appealing about your reference photo, find a different photo. Colored pencil drawings take long enough to finish that you had better be excited about the subject before you put pencil to paper. Otherwise, it’s likely to end up unfinished.

But, having said that, I can also assure you that no reference photo is ever perfect. There’s always some way to make it better. Something to leave out, something to add.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos

Now lets take a step-by-step look at the changes I made, and talk about why I made them.

Step 1 – Find the Right Configuration

Believe it or not, I did not want to draw horses this time. I’d already done that with Afternoon Graze. This time, my subject was the landscape itself, with the largest trees as the center of interest.

So the first thing I did was crop the reference photo so that those trees were not dead center in the composition.

Step 2 – Eliminate Obvious Distractions

The next change was removing all the animals. I did that with the first, basic sketch.

Those fences also had to go because I wanted a landscape without “additives.”

Since I didn’t want to draw any of the animals, I removed them too.

I did this quick work in Irfanview. It’s not pretty but it’s enough to show me what I wanted to see without having to do a lot of sketches.

You can do the same thing in almost any photo editor.

In this case, it was actually faster to do quick thumbnail sketches!

Step 3 – Move Things Around

Once the distractions were removed and only basic elements remained, I considered how to arrange them for maximum effect. (Yes, it is all right to move things around!)

About the only thing I moved was the little tree on the left. I needed something to balance the trees in the background on the right, so I “moved” the small tree on the left so it nearly overlapped the large tree.

It’s also not as far in the background as the first row of trees on the right, so it helps establish the illusion of  distance.

Step 4 – Change Size & Shape

Next, I emphasized the center of interest by making those trees larger.

I also changed the shapes of some of the trees in the background, to serve the same purpose, by making them similar in size and shape to one another.

Step 5 – Changing Color

From the start, I wanted a green landscape. I love earth tones, but the earth tones in the reference photo were simply too dull and flat to provide much interest. So I changed dry summer grass to fresh spring grass by replacing most of those earth tones with greens when I began color work.

I also brightened the greens in the trees to liven things up still more.

Step 6 – One Last Change

Finally, as the drawing neared completion, I realized it needed one more change. The colors were shaping up nicely, but there wasn’t much to lead the eye into the composition. Despite my best efforts to add interest with color, value, and texture, the foreground was, well, pretty blah.

What to Keep and Out of Reference Photos - Final Change

So I erased a narrow, winding strip of color in the foreground, and added a path. Then I finished drawing the grass around the new path.

Comparing the before and after version, it’s easy to see that the path makes a big difference in the composition.

What to Keep and Leave Out of Reference Photos - The Drawing

So What’s the Purpose of All This?

First and foremost, I want to let you know that you can change reference photos. There is almost always some way to improve upon even the best images if you know in advance what you want to draw and how you want it to look.

Second, as I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve gotten at least three drawings from this reference photo just by changing things around or by taking things out altogether. Just because you’ve made one drawing from a reference photo doesn’t mean you have to set it aside forever.

There’s an endless number of ways to change a reference photo enough to get different drawings from it.

So if you have a favorite image that keeps drawing you back, try some of these tips and see what new drawings you come up with.

4 Tips for Choosing Reference Photos of Flowers

Today, I want share a few tips for choosing reference photos of flowers, especially complex flowers. The choice of topic arises from the following question:

Dear Carrie,
My daughter always said her favourite flowers were sunflowers so for her birthday I drew and coloured two sunflowers but when she was asked last week what her favourite flowers were she said hydrangeas and peonies and Austin roses!!!

They are such blousey flowers I don’t know where to start!

Kind regards, Loraine

Thank you to Loraine. This is a fantastic question because it leads me into unfamiliar territory. I can walk you through the process beginning to end as someone who may be even newer to drawing flowers than you are!

Tips for Choosing Reference Photos of Flowers

My original plan was a standard drawing tutorial, but after looking for reference photos for hydrangeas, I realized it would be better to start at the beginning. There were such a lot of photos, but not all of them were ideal for reference photos.

The more complex the subject, the more important the reference photo becomes. Without it, you’re left to draw from your memory, and there’s no way your memory can provide all the visual information necessary for creating a believable drawing.

That’s especially true for flowers.

Choosing Reference Photos of Flowers

Whether you take your own pictures or look for them on websites like Pixabay, here are a few things to look for.

Good Contrast

Contrast is the difference between the lightest values and the darkest values. In most cases, the bigger that difference, the more interesting the composition. Color is important, but value is more important.

Take a look at this image. The colors are nice, and there’s a fair amount of contrast between the light color of the flowers and the dark color of the leaves. But it doesn’t really have any zing.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 1a

There are two reasons for that. One is the composition (which I’ll talk about next.)

The other is contrast. It doesn’t really have any. Yes, there are a few shadows within the flower itself, but there aren’t any really eye-catching highlights.

You can, of course, up the contrast with photo editing software. Most smart phones these days have options for basic photo editing built in.

You can also use desktop software. I used IrfanView on a PC to increase the contrast for the image below.

Increase the contrast a little more in the drawing, and this would make a decent drawing.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 1b

But why not just look for a reference photo that already has good contrast? Unless you’re good with a computer and photo editing software, finding a good photo reference to begin with will be your best bet.

The image below has a lot of contrast considering the limited color palette. It also has an interesting crop and movement, both from front to back, and top to bottom.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 1c

What You Should Look For

A strong light source
Strong shadows
Bold highlights

Good Composition

Think of this as the design of your drawing; where all the parts are relative to one another. Ideally, the main subject should never be dead center. That makes for an uninteresting composition, and one that will not hold a viewer’s attention very long.

This photo, for example, has the flowers a little bit too close to center. The pattern of the leaves and stems direct the eye to the flower fairly well, but what I tend to look at the longest are those patterns. Not the flower. If the background was the subject, that’s good. But the flower is the subject, so the composition needs improvement.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 2a

This is the same image cropped to focus on the flower. I’ve left enough of the leaves to provide a backdrop, but the attention is now all on the flower.

The busy-ness of the background is also reduced.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 2b

I cropped it a little further so that only a part of the flower is shown. The brightest highlights become the center of interest, but there’s plenty of interest throughout the rest of the composition.

Choosing Reference Photos of Flowers 2c

What You Should Look For

A clear center of interest
A center of interest that is not in the middle of the image

Interesting Accents

Something else to look for are interesting accents—details that are not necessarily part of the flower, but provide a nice counterpoint to the flower. In this photograph, it happens to be a honey bee, but it might also be drops of water or a butterfly.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 3

Be careful that the accent doesn’t draw too much attention from the flower if the flower is your main subject. The accent should be something people find after looking at the drawing for a while. Think of it as a hidden treasure waiting to be found.

What You Should Look For

An accent that adds interest to the drawing without distracting from the subject
Accents that belong; they look natural with the subject


Context equals setting. It’s the place where your subject is.

If you decide not to do a closeup of flowers, consider expanding the view to include background. Here’s an example of context.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 4a

And here’s another.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference 4b

Context could be your own flowers showing a portion of their surroundings in your garden, or maybe the container in which they’re growing.

Be careful not to let the context overwhelm your subject. Remember the second set of photographs? The first photo in that set showed the flowers in the center of the image. The context was the leaves, but they were actually more interesting than the flowers!

Each of these photos are good references, but if I were to draw them, I’d reduce the background to keep the focus on the flowers. The building in the first photo has to go. Let the basket and what it’s sitting on be the context.

In the second photo, I’d leave out the fence in the background. I might even crop the image to show just a small section of the fence in the foreground.

What You Should Look For

A background that enhances the subject without distracting from it
Balance between being too busy and too “blah”
A unique touch
Something that makes viewers smile when they find it


There’s a lot more to selecting the best photo reference when you’re drawing complex subjects—especially if you’ve never drawn them before. But if you get these four things right, or even just three of them, you’ll have a good start on the drawing process.

Remember, the first step in creating a great drawing is finding the right reference photo!

Next time, I’ll show you how to turn that great photo into a great drawing!